PseudoPod 590: Emperor All
By Evan Marcroft
It is like X-ray vision. Like in the comic books from when he was ten. John blinks the rain out of his eyes, and suddenly he can see through the mugger, through his shellacking of wet muscle and scaffolding of bone to the chassis beneath, to the gears and flywheels that make him move and point the knife at him. John reaches through a yielding mist of sinew and makes key refurbishments, so that the knife is aimed at the mugger’s own throat. He unscrews the man’s skull and with an easy tinkering makes him the saddest he’s ever been, plugs bright blaring red thoughts into his head.
A moment later he steps over the body and splashes across the parking lot, trembling giddily. He can’t remember where he left his car, and the city is dark. Instead he auditions the cars lined up on either side of him until he finds one that is better than his own, and makes it his.
It is unlocked when he tries the handle, and when it snarls to life (with just his touch) his favorite song is playing on the radio. The traffic lights are all green on the drive home. The police are all at other crimes as the speedometer needle roars past sixty.
That night John makes love to his wife Naomi with a ferocity he didn’t have before. She claws his back and coos that he is the best any woman could ever have. She has never said anything like that before. He can’t tell her yet what has changed. Any phrasing sounds insane. That night, John dreams dreams of concrete, wires, and riveted steel.
The next morning John awakes, his mind boiling with ideas.
Hair combed, tie straight, fortified with coffee, he walks into the office and sits in the company president’s big black leather chair, and when the president comes in John tells him that he is fired and grins as the fat fuck begs for his miserable job before sending him away in tears. For a long ten minutes he sits at his mile-long desk, drumming his fingers, before realizing that he is thinking small, and leaves in his new convertible, formerly the president’s.
Back at home he turns on the television and stares at the news until suddenly the pretty blonde newspuppet is excitedly announcing that this just in the winner of the city lottery is him, with the numbers one two three four on a ticket he never bought. He can feel first-hand the truth swimming against time and causality, salmon-like, tweaking the screws of the universe to fit him more snugly. All the proper official lottery people abruptly agree with the news lady, and always had agreed, and are scrambling to come right now with a giant movie cheque. Now he has all the money he’ll ever need forever.
John reclines in his chair to bask in the comfort of infinite wealth. But, still, that itching discontent. Same problem. Same spot itched. Then he thinks of the vehicle parked in his driveway, worth more than this house, how some clerk somewhere is now putting his name on its registration without really knowing why, and understands: He is in control now. What does he need money for? Dollars are how you ask for things.
You don’t ask for what is already yours.
After a week of experimentation, John concludes that he isn’t a god.
There are boundaries to what he can do. The principle one is distance. John discovers quickly that everything outside city limits is beyond him. He becomes people on the highway leading out, to see how far his dominion extends, and counts the miles it takes them to go dark.
Neither can he make miracles, in the biblical definition. He can’t wish diamonds into his pockets in a puff of pixie dust. His impulses actualize only as quickly as the city’s millions can manage. He can pile coincidences together like bricks and stress probability, but unless he pushes very hard, his inquisitive, innocent little wishes must still come true within the logic of the city, slowed by bureaucracy and faulty infrastructure and simple human error.
Yet John is not as disappointed by all of this as he thought he would be. The city feels enough for him. More than he thought he’d get, certainly. And tripping over the coffee table one morning, he is relieved to know he can still bleed.
John is doing anything he ever wanted to do.
He wins tickets to every concert that tours through. He is the guest at every movie premier, sitting right up front between the tuxedo’d stars. He has that pretty barista at the Starbucks by his old office give him head behind the counter just like he’s always fantasized, but thinks of Naomi afterwards, and doesn’t have her do any more.
Feeling guilty, he drives Naomi up to the hills and parks her in a mansion overlooking his city, one with a shiny new butler waiting to be switched on and more pool than they know what to do with. He fills every room with the latest everything. Every day she wonders, agog, how all of this could happen, and with a laugh, John flicks the question from her head like a gob of lint. Bewildered, but happy, she lives on his arm.
There is something he has been keeping to his chest, a dinner at the most glamorous restaurant in the city. There, with gemstones winking in her ears, smiling brightly across her neck, she tells him that she loves him. And for the first time, John knows absolutely that it is true.
As weeks evolve into months, and John wears a groove in his throne, he begins to question.
He spends more and more of his infinite time exploring the city that is inexplicably his, in ways only he can. Video games and automobiles have slowly lost their shine. They are things anyone can enjoy. Only he is privy to reality of reality, to the architecture fundamental to the architecture. He knows now what forces draw pigeons to shit on statues. He can see the conveyer belts that all men and women are born onto, how every step of their lives is denoted on a blueprint of galactic complexity. It is all very mathematic. Very designed. Down to the dust that crusts on a car’s windshield, everything is, under the skin, a gear biting into a quintillion more gears, a subatomic speck of one great machine.
When John wants for something, he spins the right gear and the whole city revolves–clanging, swearing, hissing smoke--in kind to bring his wish to him. Each towering postmodern tooth of the skyline is a puzzle of pistons and quarkical cogwheels, and John knows what each of them does.
So what is he then? A god, like he used to think? Is this heaven? Has he somehow tumbled off his own set of tracks and seen that the scenery is painted plywood, to be shuffled about as he deems best? Is he something that no words fit?
Anything is possible, John is learning. He has found many impossible things in the city already. There is space folded under space by some nuance of physics as of yet unnamed. There are strange creatures living strange lives just below the human spectrum of perceptions. They scavenge on lost time and confusion, and each other. In the city’s dank cracks John uncovers cultures alien to anything on Earth, of men and not-exactly-men. He observes them perform what he is tempted to call magic, but can’t quite.
They are aware of him, too, in a small way; some run from his panopticon’s gaze, or hide in futility. Others worship him through obscene displays of liturgy. They make him wonder if he has inherited these powers, this city, or if he has been elected into them through some unknowably cyphered vote.
Perhaps before his reign there was another city-king, now dead. Indeed, sometimes he detects in the scaffolding of his demesne hints of artifice–lingering echoes of craftsmanship not his own. But these hypotheses only beget more unanswerable questions, ones that John does not like to dwell on for long.
John leaves the strange things be. He doesn’t care to understand them. If he was not cognizant of them before, he needn’t be now. And they are still only more subjects.
Every now and then John attempts–always in vain–to expand the borders of his city. But, inevitably, these sudden public works projects all collapse for various contrived reasons outside of his influence. Perhaps with sustained effort, he thinks, but can’t commit to finding out how long that would take. Or perhaps he isn’t as strong as he will be, in time. This last notion satisfies him. He sleeps with a contented smile, certain that there will be no end of things to do.
But sometimes it niggles at him, that chance that there were others like him–or that there still are. A king for every city, with power where he has none.
Is that why he can’t move outwards?
Is someone keeping him in?
John has only sparingly left the city, and his desire to do so shrivels almost overnight. He busies himself with sex and games. When Naomi pesters him to take a vacation somewhere balmy, or wintry if he likes, he snatches the idea from her and throws it away. She screams for days without knowing why, until John takes pity and makes her sunny again, the way he likes her.
A whole year is behind him. John is eating at the most glamorous restaurant in the city, alone. This is the fifth time this month, and he has grown sick of it. But he has hit an extravagance ceiling, and has no other choice. Everywhere else is beneath him. The mirror of his wine glass reminds him that he has grown paunchy. His jowls rankle him. Yet he can never summon the verve to exercise anymore. The only thing swimming in his pool is frogs. There is nothing he needs done that he must do himself. His wife doesn’t care what he looks like.
And neither do the other women, for that matter. Out of ennui he has taken to crawling into random beds and making a wife of whatever females he finds there for a night or two. He rationalizes this by remodeling them into a second Naomi for as long as he is inside them, but his guilt has all but run dry. He still feels affection for her, certainly, and continues to lavish her with her heart’s daily desires, but feels the need for her company less and less.
She is becoming yet another used-up luxury item gathering dust in his house, and it has proven beyond his omnipotence to make her interesting.
John puts his fork down, and washes his throat with wine. This last bite was the last he can stand. Perhaps tomorrow he’ll have the place burned down, in the hope that he’ll want it again by the time it’s rebuilt.
But as John stands and makes to leave, something unprecedented happens: he is stopped. There is a waiter suddenly in his way, requesting politely but firmly that he pay his bill. John irritably makes himself the restaurant’s owner, effective as of ten minutes ago, with the effort it takes to scratch an itch, but still the man refuses to budge. You are not the owner of this establishment he retorts, affronted, flying in the face of fact. A respected patron, but not the owner.
John’s voice is hoarse from disuse. He has little incentive to speak these days, save to Naomi, at their dwindling meals together. Everyone else is just another arm.
“Then who is?”
In reply the waiter glances discreetly past his shoulder; John turns to follow his gaze.
The far end of the restaurant is swamped in a fug of cigar smoke. The lights are turned down low, for the ambiance. He can’t quite discern the face of the man who sits by himself near the kitchen door–the man, the lean man in an acute-angled suit, who ever so subtly nods in acknowledgement, and tips a snifter of something to his lips.
There is an ice-toed centipede on John’s neck. He does not think, but simply explodes at the man, meaning to drown him in the immensity of his disembodied self. But his tentacles snap shut around nothing. If John weren’t seeing him, he would swear there was nobody there at all.
John leaves stiff-leggedly, shouldering past the waiter who has gone plastic as a mannequin, already steering his chauffeur to the curb to pick him up. He riffles through every soul in a mile radius, just to know that he still can. They are there, and for a moment he is relieved, but there is nothing inside of them to take hold of and puppeteer, no cracks to worm inside of. They are all solid stone, and there is nothing he can do about it. They belong to someone else.
Inside the warmth of his limousine, John falls on to his side and hugs his knees to his chest.
He is no longer in control.
Everything he feared has come to pass.
John has a rival.
There is no other option.
It is already war.
John does not waste time speculating how this other man may have come to be. Whether he has come from another city to seize this one for his own, or some cosmic misfire spawned two city-gods instead of one, it doesn’t matter. His existence is an open sore, intolerable; there cannot be two of him.
The first order of business is to reconfigure his house into a fortress capable of withstanding whatever the other man throw against him. He requisitions citizens from their occupations to his estate in snaking lines of ants, arming them from the gun stores and personal stockpiles he empties. He concentrates until his windows are barred and bulletproof and there is a panic room of dense steel in his cellar. The neighbors are either evicted or given a psychological reshingling to make them better soldiers.
Once this is done, he gathers himself into an anvilhead and sweeps down the hills into the city like a pyroclastic avalanche, seeding his will in every soul caught in his swathe. They become his eyes and ears, whole boroughs of unknowing spies. It was a cowardly mistake to flee from his rival at the restaurant. He should have laid him low him while he had the chance, with his own hands if he had to. He is out of sight now–a snake in the grass. Infinitely more dangerous.
But although he knows this, for all his preparation, John is unprepared. A runaway truck T-bones a parked cop car, killing two of his agents. A sudden fever of arson immolates a score of them. More are gunned down in a workplace shooting. John experiences each death as a maiming. The pain, the shame of weakness, sharpens his mind.
He learns quickly to identify by feel those that his enemy has seized; they are detritus stuck in the gears of his city, impairing the manufacture of his design. His foe must have been subtly amassing them from those blind-spots where John did not bother to exert control directly, never acting contrary to his will until the time was right to strike. John curses himself for not noticing them sooner. His complacency could very well have killed him.
He bides his time, sacrificing a handful of limbs to elaborate the illusion of weakness, sneaking pieces into position, before striking back. A car dealership is pipe-bombed. A homeless man sets fire to a supermarket. The idea is denial of resources. His foe’s agents need to eat.
John applauds himself for this strategy. Taking the long view, it will be far more effective than taking pot shots at his enemy in the street. He will whittle his forces down to stubs, smoke the man from whatever hole he cowers in, and crush him under heel like he would a rat.
Then one morning he awakes to the staccato of approaching gunfire. There is slaughter in the sloping streets. As The Enemy hacks fingers and digs eyes from his body John sees his error in bleak clarity. In fortifying his home as thoroughly as he did, John has made himself a landmark. The Enemy has been playing him all along, allowing him an edge in the war so that he will forget there is no war if John is dead.
He escapes the smoldering skeleton of his house with singed hair, a hysterical wife, and a rancid hate in his throat.
John is in hiding. Wounded but alive, and stronger than before. For every time The Enemy fails to kill him he learns a lesson.
The city is everywhere a battleground. Nowhere is safe. Skyscrapers have become barracks where unknowing soldiers wait to be sent out to die in the no-man’s-lands that are the streets in between. Every pedestrian is a potential assassin, and spontaneous massacres break out like acne across the city’s face. The public sees this all as an inexplicable crime wave, ignorant of their new purpose. Both sides vie for hospitals and other logistic necessities. What they cannot take, they destroy. What they lose, they destroy. It is better to let one’s field’s burn than let The Enemy have one bite from them.
The strange things of the city have been enlisted, and fight underground skirmishes of a kind that would drive men mad at witnessing. When John runs low on weaponry he begins to import guns from outside the city, and so his enemy moves to intercept them, and it is not long before the city is valved off from the world by the battles of attrition consuming its roads and highways. John knows that with no supplies coming into the city the war must end soon. When there are no more bullets, no more working cars to kamikaze, one side will have to give.
As their fluid armies wage their guerilla warfare, as schools are shot up week after week and police stations are bombed to lawful dust, so too do John and his nemesis take the their fight subcutaneous, down into the city’ staging. John gets into the city’s teeming universe of bacteria to make The Enemy’s food supply rot that much quicker. It is not enough, and so he goes deeper, prying and teasing and massaging physics to see what complies. He finds a way to make electricity itself more volatile, and from then on the city’s lights flicker tempestuously.
He can sense his enemy’s uncertainty in the stratagems that ensue. He knows that he has irreversibly changed the rules of the game. And as the city deteriorates, as their legions thin, John is certain the end is near.
In the end it did not take long for his enemy, under the duress of the war, to break into the same enlightenment that John discovered. In what he must assume to be years The Enemy has wrought terrible changes in the city. The air is thinner these days. John never deduced what The Enemy had done to cause that, but he can only dimly remember a tree that wasn’t strangled bare. And there are no seasons anymore, just a pervading gray between the horizons, as though the city has been concreted off. Time has broken free of the minute and hour hands; night is but a blushing of the sunless sky, and comes in stuttering fits.
All public facilities have long since broken down, as the men and women who could maintain them were called away to fight and die. There is water when it rains, and that is not often. There are no police, and no law to need them. With no doctors left and no hospitals still standing, disease wastes almost as much of John’s forces as The Enemy does, although the inverse is also true. They have long ago extinguished electricity altogether, to deny the advantage of it to each other. No-one is making clothes, and so both armies are nude. There are no more guns, so they fight with knives and bones and jags of ruin. They make stinking tent camps among the mossy ruins of the skyscrapers that once pushed the city’s borders towards the sky.
The war is a saw-blade of victories and tragedies. One disastrous misstep leaves John’s citizen-militia perilously thin, and so he breeds his populace together frenziedly to replace them while an elite force holds the front lines. No-one but they are exempt. For months his streets are cacophonic with ecstatic moans. In an eye-blink of ten-some years his forces are restored to full might. The weak, disabled, and dead are recycled to fuel those remaining, for the sake of efficiency. So it goes.
John checks on his wife from time to time. She has grown frail trapped in their secret palace underground. All of the friends John gave her over the years have been conscripted to the war effort for want of real soldiers. The plastic surgeries that keep her looking twenty, then thirty, forty, when John still had time to mate with her, are unraveling. She has read all the books in the palace until they fell apart, and watched all the movies until the power went out for good. For a while he had music played for her, but there are no more musicians. So mostly Naomi sleeps, and combs her thin, white hair, and polishes the worthless little baubles in her room, and screams at the walls, and organizes her closet over and over and over again. John is satisfied with this state of being. She is both safe and comfortable.
Except, now she is doing none of those things she always does. Now, it seems, she has packed a suitcase and is dragging it down many flights of candle-lit stairs to the chamber from where John directs the war. She is gulping air by the time she appears at the door-less aperture of his war room.
John does not stir at her arrival. He has not felt the need to move at all in some time. Others bring him food and water, and take his shit away in pails. He glimpses the state of himself through her, feels her swallow her terror at how his body has evolved to accommodate his unbound will. His finger and toenails, the color of scab, have grown into the bare floor, and worm ever more thickly through it like roots. His neck has sprouted into a veiny trunk from which the unraveled threads of his head in turn branch into a fleshy canopy. Twigs of spiraled cartilage and brain blur into invisibility where they interface with the hardware of reality. His eyes dangle on withered stems.
John hears her sanity creak beneath the weight of him. It is a shame she cannot appreciate the beauty of it. He is becoming design and designer both, a sublime, monadic will. Soon he will have no body but the city.
“John,” she says. “I’m done, John. I’m leaving.”
But she is not. She has threatened this before, but she knows that it is impossible. There is no way out of the city.
“John, please. Let me go. I don’t care anymore.”
She must be patient. They have come this far already, and lost so much. Victory is nigh, and no matter how broken the city is, it can be fixed. No matter the millions dead, they can be bred back to life, stronger than ever before. He is breaking all the old rules. He is between the atoms of the city now, and there he knows that here he will find a way to kill The Enemy once and finally. The machine can be repaired, and the wish that it will make real for them is for everything to be as it was.
“John, please. Listen to yourself. Do you even know what you’re saying? Do you… do you even know you’re talking?”
There are dark masses upon the distances that grow larger with every passing day. The other cities are coming. They are finally coming, as he always knew they would, skittering ravenously across the country on legs of annexation and urban renovation, leaving snail-trails of temporary causeway in their wakes. They see him weak, and think this is their moment to pounce and devour him. And maybe he is weak, but an animal is most dangerous when it has nowhere to run. Fine. Let them come. When they dig their teeth into him he will breach like a dying whale and crush them beneath him. He will become all they are, and from the rubble, from bloody silt, from radioactive smoke, will rise something greater than his city, greater than any city.
Tears drip through the wrinkles in his wife’s face. “Please John. I don’t care about any of that. I’m begging you. It hurts, John. Let me go. Please. Please. Please.”
John is growing distracted, so he tears away her capacity to worry any longer and devours it. He hears, faintly, an unvoiced scream petering off into the bleeding emptiness in her mind. A pity that she still could not understand. Great things are founded upon hardship and sacrifice. Happiness must be fought for, tooth and nail, bled for until you’re brittle-dry. What empire ever stood on peace? This is how I build my Rome, my love. This is how I build my Xanadu. We have walked our forty years, you and I. Give me one more day.
I will make it all sunny again. Just the way you like it.
About the Author
Evan Marcroft is an aspiring speculative fiction writer based out of Philadelphia, who uses his expensive degree in Literary Criticism and Theory to do menial data entry. Evan dreams of writing for video games, but will settle for literature instead. His work has appeared in Strange Horizons, Metaphorosis, and previously in Pseudopod.
About the Narrator
Kris is a cartoonist, podcaster, and author of the short story Candle Cove Yeah, that Candle Cove which was adapted for TV as season one of SyFy’s Channel Zero. He recently launched the third chapter of his horror adventure comic Broodhollow on Patreon.